Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Our Ancient Gods by Saturnino Herrán

James W Singer 6 May 2022 min Read

Saturnino Herrán’s Our Ancient Gods is a masterful painting of Mexican Modernism from the early 20th century. It evokes the strength, dignity, and beauty of the Pre-Columbian people who fill Mexico’s lengthy history before the Spanish invasions of the 16th century. Herrán painted Our Ancient Gods as a champion of indigenismo, which is a movement promoting the elevation and respect of Indigenous people and culture. Herrán was a founding member of indigenismo and Mexican Modernism that laid the foundations for later and more famous artists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

Saturnino Herrán, Our Ancient Gods, 1916, Museo Colección Blaisten, Mexico City, Mexico.
Saturnino Herrán, Our Ancient Gods, 1916, Museo Colección Blaisten, Mexico City, Mexico.

Historical Context

Saturnino Herrán was commissioned in 1914 to create a set of three murals, known as a triptych, to adorn the walls of the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts/National Theater) in Mexico City. His three murals were to glorify Mexican heritage, with one panel focusing on Mexico’s Pre-Columbian legacy. Our Ancient Gods is a small oil study in preparation for the large fresco mural. The grand mural derived from Our Ancient Gods was the only one of the three murals to be completed before Herrán’s untimely death in 1918 from gastric complications. He was only 31 years old. Despite his short life and unfinished commission, Herrán left Our Ancient Gods as a masterpiece of singular beauty.

Saturnino Herrán, Our Ancient Gods, 1916, Museo Colección Blaisten, Mexico City, Mexico. Detail of Gold Earring.
Saturnino Herrán, Our Ancient Gods, 1916, Museo Colección Blaisten, Mexico City, Mexico. Detail.

Indigenous Models

The oil on canvas painting is quite small at only 3.3 x 3.7 ft (101 x 112 cm), with the five figures roughly at half life size. The resulting mural is doubled in proportion, resulting in life-size figures on the National Theater’s walls. Saturnino Herrán uses West Mexican men as his models for Our Ancient Gods because of their strong Indigenous and ethnic facial features. The locals around Xochicalco, a Pre-Colombian archeological site, are especially popular with Herrán because of their strong Teotihuacan, Maya, and Matlatzinca ancestry.

Saturnino Herrán, Our Ancient Gods, 1916, Museo Colección Blaisten, Mexico City, Mexico. Detail of Indigenous Model.
Saturnino Herrán, Our Ancient Gods, 1916, Museo Colección Blaisten, Mexico City, Mexico. Detail.

Mature Later Style

The composition definitely reflects Herrán’s mature later style with its somber and earthy colors. His bright and vivid colors of earlier works are abandoned for more muted nuances. However, the muted color scheme does not diminish the work’s impact. Actually, the sober coloring allows the sensual and languid lines of the figures to be more easily admired. The handsome warriors are lean and lithe with their firm muscles. Their heroic and erotic bodies stand in pleasing poses with a slight tension of impending action. They are not entirely relaxed, but they are not entirely tense. There is a sense of action and inaction blurred through their placid faces but flexed muscles.

Saturnino Herrán, Our Ancient Gods, 1916, Museo Colección Blaisten, Mexico City, Mexico. Detail of Cocoa.
Saturnino Herrán, Our Ancient Gods, 1916, Museo Colección Blaisten, Mexico City, Mexico. Detail.

Disegno Versus Colore

Saturnino Herrán was only 29 years old when he completed Our Ancient Gods in 1916. However, after 15 years of practice and performance, Herrán became a master of disegno (drawing). Since the Italian Renaissance, disegno and colore have been at the heart of an artistic debate that began with the careers of Michelangelo and Titian. Is it better to create a painting through disegno, like Michelangelo, who used strong lines and contours; or is it better through colore, like Titian, who used strong colors and shading?

Herrán evidently follows disegno with his strong black lines outlining his figures and objects. The outlines are thick and bold while still being fluid and sinuous. The lines create a very illustrative work similar to the graphic designs Herrán created for books, magazines, and stained glass. Herrán’s formal training as an illustrator and draughtsman is clearly evident in its artistic influence.

Saturnino Herrán, Our Ancient Gods, 1916, Museo Colección Blaisten, Mexico City, Mexico. Detail of Shield.
Saturnino Herrán, Our Ancient Gods, 1916, Museo Colección Blaisten, Mexico City, Mexico. Detail.

Pre-Columbian Homage

The painting is full of images appropriate to members of the Pre-Columbian elite, such as the steaming cup of cacao, gold earrings, red feathers, and leather sandals. Only the most privileged people in Pre-Columbian societies could afford and wear such items. Herrán therefore evokes the images of Pre-Columbians who would have been socially, politically, and economically important.

These are lost peoples mostly unknown to history due to the destructive invasion of the Conquistadores. Therefore, while European aristocrats have painted portraits surviving through the centuries, the Pre-Columbian aristocracy are imageless and forgotten. Hence, Herrán addresses this cultural annihilation by giving homage to Pre-Columbian culture. His extensive use of Indigenous motifs, cultural richness, and powerful style all elevate these Pre-Columbian figures to almost godlike status. They are the venerable and worthy forgotten ones. They are Our Ancient Gods.

Saturnino Herrán, Our Ancient Gods, 1916, Museo Colección Blaisten, Mexico City, Mexico. Detail of Signature and Year.
Saturnino Herrán, Our Ancient Gods, 1916, Museo Colección Blaisten, Mexico City, Mexico. Detail.

Bibliography

1.

Blaisten, Renata. Our Ancient Gods, Museo Colección Blaisten, 2018. Accessed 15 Aug 2021.

2.

Ramírez, Fausto. Our Ancient Gods, Google Arts & Culture, 2005. Accessed 15 Aug 2021.

Recommended

Frants Henningsen, Funeral, 1883, National Gallery, Copenhagen, Denmark. Detail. Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Funeral by Frants Henningsen

Funeral by Frants Henningsen is a Danish masterpiece of emotions. It examines the different psychological reactions to love, loss, and...

James W Singer 23 May 2022

Plate with Arabic Inscription, ca 975-1000, painted and glazed earthenware, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France. Detail. Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Plate with Arabic Inscription

Plate with Arabic Inscription is a masterpiece of 10th century Islamic art. It combines minimalism, abstraction, and morality into a beautiful and...

James W Singer 5 May 2022

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, The Dance, 1890, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA. Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: At the Moulin Rouge, The Dance by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Tonight the Moulin Rouge is bursting at the seams. Men in dark coats and distinguished women dance and converse on the buzzing floor. Each has a...

Ruxi Rusu 29 April 2022

Carl Gustav Carus, Woman on the Balcony, 1824, oil on canvas, Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden, Germany. Detail. Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Woman on the Balcony by Carl Gustav Carus

Woman on the Balcony is an intimate portrait of a person lost in thought. There is no action and no obvious story to interpret. However, its quiet...

James W Singer 25 April 2022